Tiny forests for unloved land

IT was a star of the show when the BBC series, Countryfile, recently launched its Plant Britain campaign – which the Corporation describes as “an ambitious two-year challenge to get us all planting to help combat climate change and, at the same time, boost our wellbeing and wildlife”.

On a plot of land near Oxford, exactly 600 trees – ranging from English Oak to Alder, Elder and Guelder Rose – are packed together in what sounds like the perfect response to all those unloved patches of grass that are dotted around our villages, towns and cities.

Roughly the size of a tennis court, the Oxfordshire site (at Witney) is the first ‘Tiny Forest’ being developed by the environment charity, Earthwatch Europe, which aims to repeat the initiative in over 100 sites across the UK, during the next three years.

Says the charity, on its website (here): “Mimicking native woodland, this small, fast-growing and dense forest is ideal for urban areas where space is limited.”

With the help of ‘citizen scientists’, Earthwatch will be gathering data from all its Tiny Forests to understand the growth and development dynamics, plus the environmental and social benefits, of each forest over time.

They will be monitoring ‘thermal comfort’, flood mitigation, CO2 absorption and biodiversity, as well as the social benefits that the forests bring to local communities.

The inspiration comes from several sources, not least the forest management methodology developed since the 1970s by Japanese botanist, Dr Akira Miyawaki, and subsequent refinements by Shubhendu Sharma, founder and director of Afforestt (here).

Earthwatch is rolling out the concept in the UK with the support of IVN Nature Education, a Dutch organisation that has successfully planted more than 100 Tiny Forests in the Netherlands.

Introducing Countryfile viewers to the Tiny Forest idea was Louise Hartley, senior programme manager at Earthwatch.

She says: “Despite their small size, Tiny Forests help provide a green solution to the enormous environmental challenges we are currently facing. They help mitigate these problems, and raise awareness and understanding of these challenges within communities.

“Earthwatch has a team of expert scientists who will be continuously investigating their environmental benefits. 

“As well as the environmental benefits, Tiny Forests provide safe havens or ‘stepping stones’ for wildlife and a space for local people to connect with nature, as well as an inspiring place for young people to enjoy outdoor learning.

“Tiny Forests provide a publicly-accessible place for people to relax, enjoy and appreciate nature in the built environment, they also help to raise awareness of the climate crisis and the importance of nature-based solutions in urban areas.

“After planting, the forests provide an ideal location for local communities to engage with nature. They can support health and well-being through simple aesthetic value, actively watching wildlife, personal involvement in the project and as an educational resource or skills-building experience.”

Adds Earthwatch project manager, Vanessa Wilde: “Typically, a Tiny Forest is planted between November and March.

“Tiny Forest maintenance is quite minimal and is only required for the first two years, after which the forest becomes self-sustaining.”

“We engage a ‘keeper team’ – a core group of four-to-five volunteers – who act as ambassadors for the Tiny Forest and take on extra responsibility for it. They are involved in choosing a design for the Tiny Forest, participating on planting day and monitoring days and also helping to maintain it, whether that be occasional watering and weeding or litter collection.”

Each Tiny Forest will begin with a site survey and soil analysis, to determine the most appropriate species to plant. In addition, local people – not least school children – will be very much to the fore, getting their hands dirty with actual planting, as well as participating in monitoring. 

A possible 600-tree species list might look like the following (in brackets: scientific name, followed by number planted):

Alder (Alnus glutinosa, 30)

Apple, crab (Malus sylvestris, 25)

Birch, silver (Betula pendula, 25)

Blackthorn (Prunus spinose, 20)

Cherry, bird (Prunus padus, 30)

Cherry, wild (Prunus avium, 30)

Common privet (Ligustrum vulgare, 15)

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea, 25)

Elder (Sambucus nigra, 15)

Elm, wych (Ulmus glabra, 25)

Guelder, rose (Viburnum opulus, 30)

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna, 25)

Hawthorn, midland (Crataegus laevigata, 20)

Hazel (Corylus avellana, 15)

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus, 25)

Lime, common (Tilia x europaea, 30)

Lime, large-leaved (Tilia platyphyllos, 40)

Lime, small-leaved (Tilia cordata, 40)

Maple, field (Acer campestre, 25)

Oak, english (Quercus robur, 40)

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia, 15)

Spindle (Euonymus europaea, 30)

Wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis, 25)

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: Earthwatch employees and local volunteers meet at the Tiny Forest, Witney, for the first monitoring day. September 2020. Picture credit: Earthwatch.

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